Rematch! Trilogy: Round 1

By Reid M. Haynes

"You're using passive voice again."

That was the first thing to come out of Camille St. Claire after finishing the manuscript her boyfriend had given her. Her eyes were dull behind her glasses, regarding the words on the page like they were cancerous growths. She tossed her light blond hair behind her neck with a frown. "A lot of adverbs, too."

Richard McKnight, known as Ricochet to his friends, snorted at this. "C'mon, Cammy," he argued, motioning at the document. "It's all for build-up. The passive voice makes it epic, like 'Sword of Hope,' so who cares about those little rules?"

"We're talking about a hundred years of narrative convention, Ricochet." Camille tapped the side of her frames. "Well, more like a few years of people blabbing on writing blogs, Anyway, you can't just turn out whatever you feel like and expect to get readership."

"Fuh, you and your 'Hope Sword,' just like every other reviewer." Ricochet took back his manuscript, dusting it off like it was the first draft of the Magna Carta. "This is about me making the most kickass action story on the net. My personal tribute to all the greatest fighters, like Sammo Hung, Benny the Jet, and Rocky Balboa."

"Rocky Balboa is a fictitious character," Camille reminded him, frowning at the Rocky V poster on the wall."

"Image, Cammy, and style," he told her, smiling broadly. "That's what we're goin' for here!"

"Whatever." The slim, statuesque beauty pulled an mp3 player from her jeans pocket. "I guess you're still going to the exhibition bout at the gym today, huh?" she commented, fiddling with her tangled headphones. "Unless you're stuck on this new pop-writer thing."

"Nah, I got it." Ricochet grinned toothily at her. Sauntering over to the punching bag, he dug into it with a series of one-two punches, then swatted it down with a pair of precision kicks. He ran his hand through the blue-dyed stripe in his blond bangs, and positioned his half-glasses on his nose. "I'll take 'im down in two."

Camille refrained from comment, continuing to jam to the music blaring out of her headphones. By the methodical pounding, Ricochet could tell it was We Will Rock You by Queen.

"Gotta kick it, Cammy," Ricochet told her, pulling her head close to kiss her cheek. "Lock up for me, will ya?"

"Yeah, yeah," she mumbled, a ghost of a smile on her lips.

The blond teen strode to the door leading out of his workshop, plucking up his satchel on the way. He took a pair of red boxing gloves off the peg on the wall, each festooned with a bright yellow star. Whipping open the door, Ricochet started to head out to the garage, then stopped mid-way through the door frame. Turning around quickly, he thrust a thumb towards his chest for Camille's benefit, grinned, then shut the door.

"What a drama queen," she said, her glasses falling off her nose.

Ricochet's prized beetle bug scooted down the road like a wind-up toy, making a muted humming noise as it swung though traffic. With invulnerable cheeriness, Ricochet let the large annoying Mac truck and the other road bullies wash off his back as he made his way towards school. He had gotten the Pandora hookup working yesterday, and it was sending a steady stream of Survivor hits through the car's cramped interior. 80s pump-up music always kept him frosty, while psyching him up for the bout ahead.

Ricochet was one of the up-and-coming kickboxers in the downtown area. With his patented "Fleet Foot Flurry," the young fighter had toppled scores of amateur boxers looking for their shot at the big-time. His qualifying match was in one week, and then he would have his chance to compete in the professional circuits. It was high time for him to mix it up with the big names out there, the ones that really got your blood moving.

His teeth rode over his bottom lip in a crooked grin, and he coasted through the dirty streets like he was riding on air. He knew he was ready; he could feel his spirit lifting in every fight. Ricochet could throw his gloves in the bag right now, because it was all in the bag.

Pulling up to P.S. 114, Ricochet rode past the crumbly campus until he found a parking place. With his satchel slung over his back, the teen left his gloves behind and climbed out of the car, his eyes roving casually over the punks smoking by the west wall. He always wondered who would be the next to try and steal his beetle; it was his one real extravagance. It was just as well that there hadn't been an incident; they'd find out quickly enough that Ricochet McKnight was more than just talk.

Ricochet walked across the crowded schoolyard, chugging down a Powerade he had pulled from his satchel. He slipped in and out between the students with ease, as if participating in a synchronized swimming routine. He glanced briefly at the recycling bin for a second, then returned his focus to the front of the school. Without looking, he tossed his empty sports drink to the side, hearing it clatter in the recycling bin a second later.

Pausing by the basketball court, Ricochet found a tall, black teen eating a turkey sandwich, the intoxicating aroma of the special sauce already reaching his nostrils. "Yo, Nathan!" he called out with a wave, strolling over to meet his pal.

"Hey, what kept you up?" the boy responded, glaring at him. "You're supposed to try my new Strawberry Blitz."

"Sorry, Cammy was bustin' my chops over my new masterpiece," he explained, rubbing the back of his head. "I was trying to get her to do a quick onceover on it, and it ended up being a thriceover."

"That dish needs to be chilled at all times, Ricochet," Nathan pressed on, as if he hadn't heard the other boy. "It's probably already messed up in the heat of the car. Three hours work, wasted!"

"Aw hell, it's probably still good." Ricochet shrugged off the complaints with a smile. "Everything you make ends up fine, so don't sweat it."

He meant it. Nathan Branford was shooting for a culinary arts scholarship in two years, and his dishes were widely regarded as practiced paradise. P.S. 114 had a decent program for home economics, but most of Nathan's real progress came from books and a lot of trial and error. Ricochet thought his devotion to his craft was making him a bit neurotic, but he was still cool in his book.

"Hope you're as confident about the stuff you dish out," Nathan chimed cheekily. "You think you can stand the heat of the oven in those preliminary matches?"

"You know the Fleet Foot Flurry can't be beat," the fighter responded, kicking out at the winter air. "With your fruit cake and my fruit punch, we're gonna rock this world once we're out of school."

"A real one-two combo from P.S. 114's finest, huh?" A slow-cooked smile smoked Nathan's lips, and the two teens tapped knuckles in unity.

"Hey, wait up, you guys!" a chipper voice broke out from behind.

Nathan's smile vanished, and both he and Ricochet turned to find a black girl with palm tree ponytails approaching them, looking like she was a year or so younger than the two boys. She had obviously been hoofing it the whole way, with her shoes nearly flopping off her feet, and her violin case bouncing on her back. Skidding to a stop, she put her hands on her knees to rest. "Nathan, you totally left me behind again!" she complained, her chipmunk cheeks huffing in the crisp air.

"Man, Keisha, how many times are you gonna show up here embarrassin' me?" Nathan snapped, stalking up to her.

"Mom told me to bring your V8 pronto, and she's not gonna letcha cook dinner tonight if you don't drink it!" the girl piped up, putting her hands on her hips. "She almost got on to me because I keep eating all your sugary stuff! You're making us all fat!" Keisha's eyes widened as she noticed the other boy, and she smiled. "Hey, Ricochet!" she said, giving him a wave.

"Yo, Keisha, what's goin' down?" Ricochet responded in kind, looking her over. "So you got into that ritzy private high school, huh?" he said, noting the school uniform she wore.

She beamed and twirled, causing her pleated skirt to flare out. "I managed to get As in five classes, and they let me in!" Keisha cheered, throwing out the "victory" sign. "I was kinda worried the B I got in Chemistry wasn't gonna be good enough, but they really liked my stuff in Language Arts. I'll be a teenage John Grisham before you know it!" She winked at him.

"Flirting with the best friend again?" Nathan intoned, his voice on the verge of a growl. "Big time crime in brother town over here."

"C'mon, you know he likes me," she insisted, still smiling. "We're all friends here, right?"

Ricochet smirked lightly. (Guess she still hasn't given up on that, huh) he thought to himself.

He really wasn't comfortable with brushing off Keisha's crush in the face of that dimpled smile, even though he had to tell her "no" two years ago when she pushed just a little bit too hard. It didn't help that she was as sharp as a tack, with good cheer and a genuinely infectious personality. Being Nathan's younger sister, she was a constant fixture anyway, so he usually treated her affections with a light touch. And it wasn't that bad having a fan, in all honesty.

"I wish I could wear something other than mary-janes, though," Keisha commented, peering behind her and tapping her toes on the blacktop. "They really hurt my heels."

"Try and see if you can get away with loafers," Ricochet advised her. "These kind of thinktanks don't mind you skimping on the dress code if you're a good student."

"Thanks, Ricochet," she said, grinning at him. "How d'ja figure that?"

"Heh, this sharp mind was sought after for a prep school once," he boasted, tapping the temple with his pointer. "Gotta keep the brain on boxing, though."

"It's bogus, girl," Nathan warned her, waving off his friend. "His parents are just rich."

"He's still real cool," Keisha insisted, cocking her head to the side and causing her hair to shake a bit.

Ricochet turned to her with a grin, but ended up staring past her ponytailed head to catch a commotion in front of the school. Under the awning, just a little left of the double doors leading to the main hall, he could pick out a large football player looming over one of the smaller RPG club members. Star receiver Jarrod was currently giving Game Master Stanton the business, corralling the poor freshman with arms perched to either side of the brick wall. The jock's face was close enough to his prey to either chew off his nose, or possibly seduce him.

"That bozo pullin' this junk again?" Nathan groused, absently drinking from the V8 Keisha had given him. "Didn't he already get told off for picking on the football mascot?"

"What a jerk!" Keisha huffed, a tiny growl in her voice.

A devil-may-care grin wove its way across Ricochet's face. "It's just one more thing to pump me up," he cooed, licking his lips.

"Hey, are you gonna kick his butt?" Keisha smiled hopefully, making a few punching motions.

"I've worked Jarrod over before without these guys," he replied, knocking his knuckles together. "I'll just give him the eye of the tiger."

"Wow, cool Ricochet!" she burst out.

"It ain't that cool," Nathan disagreed, rolling his eyes and muttering something akin to "Sly Stallone Fanatic."

Ricochet cruised over to the action at a steady pace, whistling his favorite Survivor song. He rotated his shoulder blades, and cracked his neck joints in various places. Catching a bit of the drama unfolding between the two, he waited outside their sphere of chaos for a few moments to get the gist of the situation. "And if you didn't keep talking about your +1 magic missile, I wouldn't have to kick your ass!" Jarrod was winding down his tough guy speech, snatching away Stanton's tabletop RPG.

"You're crushing the box!" the boy whined, struggling to grab it back. "That's a collector's edition, only available through preorder!"

"Just be lucky I'm not crushing your pencil neck," Jarrod mocked menacingly, grabbing the side of the boy's head with his free hand.

Ricochet chose this part to make his entrance, before things got out of hand. "Hey Jarrod!" he crowed, walking right into the firezone. "Making the rounds on the small and meek again? They'll inherit the earth, you hear?"

Jarrod looked at Ricochet like he was an idiot, his lip twisting to show some gum. Stanton was also staring at him strangely, but had enough good sense to take back his game as Jarrod's grip loosened. "So what's it to you, McKnight?" Jarrod threw out as his opening retort, whirling around and pushing the fighter.

Ricochet quickly snared Jarrod's arms, twisted them behind his back and causing the jock to grunt in surprise. "But if you're planning on roughing up some freshman, I think you'd better off lookin' for a stronger foe," he whispered in his ear, as Jarrod struggled beyond his power.

Ricochet pushed him away like a sack of yesterday's garbage. Jarrod reared like an angry tomcat, but the young fighter was already juking and jiving, putting up his dukes as if he was in the title bout. "C'mon!" Ricochet's legs carried him around the front of the school, the gleam of danger in his eyes. "Show me whatcha got! I got the stuff to give you a good fight!"

By now, a small crowd was starting to form around the three of them, a few students even coming back from inside just for the action. Jarrod watched the gathering students with a nervous eye, as if suddenly realizing he'd have to win a fight with Ricochet to save face. "The hell with this, pal!" he blustered instead, straightening his letter jacket. "I don't need this!"

"No 'ding ding'?" Ricochet quipped, still bouncing from side to side. But his fists were down, signaling that he wasn't going to push it further.

With an irritated snort, Jarrod walked over to the school's double doors. Before he left, the jock turned to Ricochet one more time. "You think you're top dog, McKnight." Jarrod jabbed a finger out as if he wanted to make a Ricochet kabob. "But one day, somebody's gonna come and knock that smart-ass grin off your face with one punch."

Ricochet just shrugged his shoulders, cool and relaxed.

Jarrod huffed one more time, then stormed into the building, stroking over his close-cropped hair with a comb. Ricochet just whistled in the wind, then walked over to talk to Stanton. "Gotta take better care of yourself, freshie," he advised, patting the tabletop RPY a few times.

"Yeah, thanks Ricochet," Stanton breathed out, straightening his glasses. "This has all the data I wrote up for my monsters and traps."

Out of curiosity, Ricochet took a closer look at the game. "Hero Quest, huh?" he said. "You should just create a 99-level Wizard with a gatling gun and be done with it."

"I can't." Stanton shook his head. "Nobody likes a Gary Stu."

"Ah, a fanfic writer." The older teen nodded in understanding. "I hear ya, I hear ya."

As Stanton went inside the school, Nathan and Keisha approached from the blacktop for the victory party. "That was radical, Ricochet!" Keisha jumped two feet in the air. "You rock!"

"Thirty seconds, a lazy-eyed stare, and these guys take off like that." Ricochet snapped his fingers. "Remember that when you need to trounce some badass Catholic schoolgirl."

She giggled, and they slapped five.

"Uh, Ricochet, second bell's ringin'." Nathan jerked his thumb towards the intercom. "Go talk to your fangirl later."

Ricochet smiled easily, and tossed a quick look at Keisha. "My literary debut awaits," he told her, raising his eyebrows up and down. Leaving Keisha to ponder this statement, he and Nathan strode into the school as Ricochet pulled out his manuscript and a pen for some last minute corrections.

The Creative Writing elective class was filled mainly with B and A students who spent a lot of time on online writing forums. Nathan had shown up too, though mainly just to smuggle his cookbook under a dust jacket for The Grapes of Wrath and brush up on some recipes. Beside him, was Ricochet, who had signed on for the class as soon as his boxing story had come into fruition. Out of all the wannabe Kings, Rowlings, and Ludlums. Ricochet's writing spirit was the strongest.

After all, he was the guy that was going to bring the boxing ring onto the page. Ricochet would introduce a whole new crowd to his favorite sport. Who'd know better at writing a fighting drama than a real fighter?

"And then, the theme from Rocky starts playing right when the main character walks into the room," he was saying to Nathan, pounding his palm for emphasis. "The Gonna Fly Now theme, not Eye of the Tiger, get it?"

"Uh, theme from Rocky, Ricochet?" Nathan chuckled a bit and smiled nervously. "Don't you need to get the rights to that?"

"Remember to add correct comma placement," Keisha reminded Ricochet. "It's really bad when the flow of your dialogue isn't natural."

"What are you still doing here!?" Nathan shouted at the girl peeking in through the window. "Go to your own school!"

"Oh, I just forgot my violin in the parking lot," she laughed. "Why d'ja bring your cookbook into Lit class?"

Nathan glared burning death at his sister, making a slashing motion at his throat. Keisha eeped, and zipped back under the window in a whoosh of ponytails. Ricochet palmed his face and grit his teeth to keep from laughing.

"I'm gonna poison her bundt cake next time I bake one," Nathan decided, trying to bury his nose in the book.

"Just give her one of those spicy Japanese pizzas of yours," Ricochet suggested, his voice light with humor. "Those things knock me right out."

"It's 'okonomiyaki', Ricochet," Nathan corrected, giving him a beleaguered look.

At the sound of the door swinging upon, the two teens turned their heads to find the Language Arts teacher Mr. Matthews easing into the room a few minutes late. The term "mister" was always a bit of a misnomer for many of the students; he had just turned twenty-four, and still had the look of a college graduate, even with his crisp goatee.

"All right kids, we're gonna do a little show-and-tell," he started, tapping his finger briskly on a composition book. "That's means you show us where you are in creative writing, and the rest of us rip into you like a bag of sea-salt bagel chips. Kidding. Maybe." His dry expression remained fixed during this introduction.

Ricochet just folded his arms behind his head, snickering in spite of himself. He imagined his story wowing the group, who never knew he was as fast with his words as he was with his fists.

Matthews cocked his eyebrow. "You." He pointed toward the desks, picking out Ricochet's smug form from the fifteen students seated in the classroom. "New guy. You look like you wanna throw something at us."

Ricochet's grin widened like a circus clown, and he threw out a 'thumbs up.'

Matthews sighed. "Alright," he relented, motioned toward the front of the room. "McKnight, is it? Get up here and toss your cookies."

Ricochet gathered his manuscript, slipped out of his seat, and proceeded to the front of the class as if climbing into the ring. Pulling the paper up to bear, he coughed into his fist for a little buildup, and quickly got down to reading.

What followed was around three minutes of story exposition. It took them to the heart of the Bronx down to the fighting city of Philadelphia, chronicling a young man's quest to become the best. Ricochet even managed to get to the part inspired by the street fight in Rocky V, complete with the sleazy, screaming fight promoter who gets punched in the jaw ("Sue me for what?"). When he was done, he was flush with excitement, ready to receive his just reward.

"It freakin' stinks!" a loud voice broke out among the students, with all the enthusiasm of a angry political activist.

"Huh?" Ricochet's jaw went slack, his posture weakening. He looked between his manuscript and his heckler, wondering how this could have happened.

"Yeah, not very good," a redhead named Jill agreed. "Kinda like some B-movie Rocky ripoff, with a lot of stolen material, especially from the bad Rocky movies."

"The protagonist's personality changes in nearly every scene," a lanky young man spoke up, making a circular motion with his hand. "One minute, he's this towering inferno of rage, the next, he's telling all these bad puns that all the characters laugh at for some reason."

"There's too many run-on sentences," a squirrely-looking girl pointed out. "I lose track of what's happening and where the characters are doing."

"And there ain't enough chicks in it, either!" a blond boy with hair over one eye complained, peering up from his own work, The Slick Limestone Nookie Necromicon. "You could've at least put in a totally hot magical girl with pink hair and glasses."

The class ceased their criticism to stare at the boy. "Oh sure!" Slick protested. "Stare at the weeb! You know I'm right!"

"What a loada junk!" Ricochet cried, shaking his fist. "This has action, romance, and a scene where a kickboxer fights the entire Russian army! You're looking at a Grade A novelist here!"

"McKnight, you're a sixteen-year-old teen writer showing off his first work," Matthews droned, unaffected by the teenager's passion. "You need to evaluate your stuff if you don't want your publisher sweeping you under the rug with the dust bunnies."

"I'm just showing it online," the aspiring young artist argued, waving his manuscript at him. "There's a huge audience for action/sports/sci-fi fiction out there!"

"Well then, just ignore someone with a writing degree and four published stories," Matthews countered sarcastically. "What do I know? I'm just your teacher."

"Man, harsh," Nathan mumbled under his breath, hiding behind his book.

Some of the class chuckled under their breath. Ricochet bore the teacher's scrutiny for a moment more, then withered away back to his desk. As Matthews continued on with his lecture, the teen slumped down in a heap. "At least I wasn't the guy who brought the freakin' cookbook," he grumbled, a thin streamer of drool oozing out of his mouth and onto the desk.

That hadn't gone nearly as well as he expected. Surely he had something going on with his stories, right? But something was eating at him, gnawing a chink in his ironclad self-esteem. It had been a while since he was hit that hard outside the ring, and was starting to wonder what the next round would bring.

The abandoned hallway reverberated with the footfalls of two students trailing behind on the way to science class. Ricochet and Camille were walking slowly towards the science lab, with Ricochet in no hurry to mess with test tubes, and Camille just sticking with him on principle. She wasn't saying much, leaving Ricochet to fill the gaps of the conversation. Currently. he was talking her ear off about his latest ideas, distracting himself from his humiliation in Creative Writing class.

"So my next fight's in about four hours," Ricochet informed her, punching in the air. "I figure I'll get a good image in my head of the guy's smashed face, then use it for the cover of the book."

"Charming," she sighed, looking off distractedly.

"I tried drawing a boxing glove, but it ended up looking like some sort of tomato," he went on, making sketching motions with his hand. "Maybe I can do a favor for one of the art students and get an extra hand. What do ya think?"

Camille turned to him in a rush of pale hair. "Ricochet, I think..." she said, staring him straight in the face. "...I think we should break-up."

He stopped mid-step, and did a double take, the hairs on his arm prickling up. "...Huh?" Ricochet burbled, his pupils shrinking within his eye sockets. "What're you talkin' about, Cammy?"

"Yeah, it's the whole different directions thing," she continued, now avoiding his gaze. "Straight from the handbook, I guess."

"You can't be serious!" he gasped, whirling to face her head on. "I mean...seriously!"

"I am," she sighed, her posture slouching as if in defeat.

"Cammy, I just got burned in Creative Writing class!" he cried, his voice rising in volume and intensity. "Don't do this to me! Not now!"

"Sorry, bad timing, huh?" Camille frowned unhappily, peeking at him through her bangs.

The girl put her hands on her hips, and started pacing about the hall like an orator preparing for a speech. "Honestly, you've just gotten weird on me this past year," she told him. "You're all hyper and junk, and writing these strange stories. Like you're becoming one of those weird forum dwellers or something."

"Why are you throwing all this at me now?" he snapped, bearing down on her with his 5'9' frame. "I mean, where the heck did this junk come from anyway?!"

"I tried to talk to you about this, but you didn't seem interested in anything other than your writing and boxing." Camille met his eyes once again after some brief hesitation. "It's drying up between us. You know that."

She smiled sadly. "I liked the old Ricochet McKnight," she said, putting her hands behind her back. "The guy with eyes of steel, who always ran head-first into everything. But now you treat life like a joke, so it's just sideshow time with you. You're never serious anymore, and I'm starting to feel like your big sister."

"Yo, Cammy." He pleaded with her. "I've always been the same. You know me...don't you?"

"Not really," she said, closing her eyes in resignation.

Ricochet just stood there, and stiffened up like a screw that had been tightened way too tight. Camille reached out for a second to touch his shoulder, but hesitated when his entire body started shaking. Her eyes stole away from his, and then she turned and walked off on her own towards the science lab, a slight droop in her posture. Then, she disappeared behind the door to the lab, her long hair like a closing curtain to the final act of a beloved Broadway show.

Ricochet was left standing alone in the hallway, with only the muffled sounds of ongoing classes to keep him company. Through the angry tears in his stubborn eyes, he looked over the stack of school books in his arms. He got out his manuscript, the master work he took two weeks to compose, two weeks completely wasted. He then crumpled it into a tight ball, as tight as the emotions squeezed within his chest.

The Bloody Queen downtown gym rocked with each punch from its rising stars, as if the building could barely contain their lust for combat. Mixed martial artists of various ages were scattered about he bags and weights, with a few huddled up at the soda machine, seeing if they could shake out a free Pepsi with a well-placed punch. The ring was currently occupied by two adult fighters, with the larger one clearly dominating in the match-up. The cries of pain and despair filled the gym to capacity; only the heartiest of souls could participate in the madness without shedding bitter tears.

Ricochet's eyes smoldered through the smokey gym like burning embers. His young face was blanketed by a cloak of darkness cast by the flickering light fixtures, giving him an aura that unsettled even a few of the older fighters. The teen sat by himself on a small bench, idly twisting a damp towel in his grip. A couple of people were looking at him strangely, either with abject fear or an animal desire to take him down.

This was okay by Ricochet. He hadn't ever really fought in a bad mood before, so he thought it might be good to see what he was capable of in this particular state. And if he happened to make a few wimps fidgety, well then he'd have easy pickings. Fighting was what he was built for; he'd show them all he was a wrecking machine.

A dumpy, scraggly-haired woman in her late fifties approached him. "McKnight, you're up," she rumbled, thrusting her thumb towards the ring. "Quit with the origami stuff and get out there."

Ricochet looked at the towel in his hands, which he had somehow subconsciously folded into a pattern. But he just shrugged, tossed the towel over to the side, cracked his knuckles twice, and slid his gloves over his bandaged hands.

The woman gave him a quick once-over as the fighter jerked to his feet. "Kid, you don't look so good," she figured, evaluating him with the look of a wartime nurse. "You wanna think about sitting this one out?"

"It's cool, Boss," he told her, biting down on his mouthpiece like a fortune cookie. "I'm ready for a bloodbath."

She grimaced, putting her hands on her hips. "Real charming, McKnight."

Nora Queens, whom Ricochet always called "Boss", may have looked like an underpaid worker at a laundromat, but there was no one better at mining a fighter's potential. She had been a champion in the women's kickboxing circuit some thirty years ago, having held onto the title through eleven defenses before finally going down. A story had been floating about the Bloody Queen regulars that she was even capable of participating in the men's fighting circuit. Regardless of the truth, she had all of the fighters' complete trust, including Ricochet's.

"You got a lot of energy today," she assessed, stalking about him. "Don't waste it all on a crummy mood and sloppy blows. Use your head, remember?"

He just looked at her and pumped his fist once.

Ricochet headed for the ring, his eyes roving around scope out the potential opponents for his match today. "No backing out once you get in the ring, either!" Nora called. "You commit to a fight, and then you see it through like a champion."

"Aren't I always top notch?" he tossed out behind him. "Don't worry about me, Boss."

Climbing into the ring, Ricochet leaned against the post in his corner, resting his arms on the ropes. He shook his shoulders impatiently, feeling his adrenaline rise at the prospect of a rousing fight. Despite his insistence that he could take on stronger opponents, he knew Boss would pair him off with another teenage fighter his own age. Honestly, the last thing he wanted today was to be babied.

This was all before Nora introduced his opponent. Ricochet heard the man approach before he saw him, his footfalls like avalanches on the cold, concrete floor. Lifting the rope with one hand, a living titan slipped into the ring, his white eyes like a rare Hell snowfall. Ricochet found himself looking upwards at the rival boxer, and felt a pulse of fear in his arteries.

Before Ricochet was a dark-skinned athlete wearing the colors of Kenya, standing at least six feet tall. His chest looked as hard as a breastplate, and his arm muscles seemed to be sculpted from bronze. His chin sported a trim beard, and his eyes were narrow, calculating, and hungry. He was absolutely unbelievable as a young man under eighteen, looking more like he was twenty-five.

Ricochet exhaled a breath he didn't know he was holding. He had never seen anyone like this show up in the gym before, and he had been coming here for almost two years. His mind was still a bit hazy when Nora arrived with a small group to watch the match. "Alright, four round amateur bout with Ricochet McKnight vs. Eastside Akello," she announced in a firm voice. "Fighters ready?"

Ricochet gnashed his teeth in a death grin, and felt his fighting spirit rush back. "Akello, huh?" he growled. pounding his gloves together. "Alright, let's mosey."

Nora kicked a large oil drum to signify a bell ringing. "Keep it clean!"

Ricochet took the initiative with some slippery legwork as he grooved toward his opponent like an extra from Saturday Night Fever. As Akello put up a defense, Ricochet tested it with some swift jabs designed to smoke out the weak points. Peppering him with a few punches, he moved up to sweeping hooks, his rhythm as exact as a metronome. He then lanced out with a side kick that made the larger fighter back up a bit, inciting Akello to go on the attack.

Akello broke the ice with some strong straight punches, causing Ricochet to bob back and forth in order to avoid them. Ricochet slipped under a few jabs at a hair's breath, countering with a pair of punches that were subsequently blocked. Moving about the ring, Ricochet did his best to keep his opponent on his toes, attacking from all angles. He fell in with a few front kicks, then zipped back on out, trying his utmost to control the flow of combat.

Suddenly, Akello moved in and caught Ricochet in an opening he had inadvertently left around his midsection, knocking him out of the beat. The titan continued to pound away at Ricochet as the smaller fighter scrambled to put up a defense. But Akello wasn't done, as Ricochet found himself being assaulted on all sides by a kaleidoscope of punches that left him seeing all the colors of the Kenya flag. A roundhouse kick broke the air in front of him, with Ricochet just managing to back away from it.

The boy battler coughed a bit, and spat out a wad of blood that had congealed inside his mouth. "O-kay," he declared, spittle flying from between his teeth. "Time to bring on the Fleet Foot Flurry!" Stepping forth, he slid from side to side to confuse Akello, maneuvering just outside of striking distance. With a deft twist of the knee, Ricochet's leg lanced out towards his opponent for a thunder-bolt thrashing.

But lightning never struck, as Akello caught his leg and threw it aside, leaving Ricochet staggering around like a broken wind-up toy. Next. a lightning fast straight punch turned his head a full ninety-degrees, causing him to spit out his mouthpiece. Ricochet felt his stomach implode with two solid kicks, then fell to his knees as a solid body blow landed right in the breadbasket. Akello just grunted, and pounded on Ricochet's skull, sending him to the mat in a heap.

The young fighter's gaze was foggy, the crowd outside the ring flickering in and out of existence. They formed into familiar faces; Camille and Mr. Matthews, frowning at his failure. His muscles felt like silly putty, and he had no more strength to mold them. Before he realized it, the ten-count was over, and he was still on the ground.

"Alright, alright, that's the end of it!" Nora broke into the ring from the sidelines. "K-O in one round. Victory goes to Eastside Akello. Come on, out of the ring, you two."

"Shit!" Ricochet swore, slamming his hand on the mat. His bruises were still throbbing, but his temper was as vibrant as ever. He glared up at his opponent, propping himself up on his elbows.

And Akello just turned away, like he had just graced a bum with Shakespeare.

Ricochet rushed back up, and dove at Akello with his arm cocked. In a flash, Nora appeared between him. "Dammit, cut that crap out!" Nora snapped, restraining his arm with a surprisingly strong grip.

"I'll get you!" he cursed out at Akello, spit flecks spraying out like chemical carpet cleaner. "Get back here!"

"'Don't worry about me' he says," Nora mocked, a scowl on her face. "McKnight, hit the showers. You're nuts today."

"What?!" Ricochet yelled, stomping over to her. "Boss, you...!"

"Hey, now!" she barked, the lines in her face deepening like canyons. "Don't make me ban you from the gym, kid."

Ricochet stared at Nora for one dangerous moment. With his respect for her barely winning out over his rage, he whirled around and stormed out of the ring. A couple of boxers backed away as he headed towards the exit. He tore open the door took to the streets, his failure in love and war fully metastasized, eating him alive.

The roar of rushing automobiles bounced back and forth between the cramped streets of the city borough. A thick city haze blanketed the brick apartments and cracked sidewalks, causing some of the country tourists to cough a little as they passed on through. It was still more or less a comfortable part of town, if you had a little street smarts and knew some self defense. The teen fighter currently loitering about didn't feel all that sharp or strong at the moment, though.

Ricochet sat on the stoop of a condemned building once owned by a local artist. He licked absently at drops from the mouth of his Powerade, the lukewarm hint of raspberries soggy on his tongue. His gloves dangled onto the steps from the straps in his hand, and his glasses rested crookedly on his nose. The teen's posture resembled a kid that had been picked last for kickball; a portrait of utter defeat.

Around ten minutes later, Keisha Branford arrived at the apartments with her violin case. She shone when she caught him sitting on the stoop. "Hi, Ricochet!" she greeted, propping up the case in her arms and walking over to him. "What's up?"

Ricochet snarled, crushing the plastic bottle in his grip. Bolting upwards, he hurled the empty sports drink across the street, and kicked some loose rubble onto the sidewalk. Keisha shrieked, grabbing the sides of her head as the bottle sailed past her. The bottle slammed full-out against the stop sign, the metallic clang warbling around the block and into Ricochet's ears.

The teen froze in place like a modern art statue. Ricochet could feel his mouth muscles straining, stretched into their hideous grimace. Keisha was staring wide-eyed at him, his crazed countenance reflected in her dark eyes. As the girl fought her trembling, he looked down and settled back onto the stoop, straightening his glasses. "Sorry..."

"'s okay," Keisha attempted, uncurling from her hunch. "You just kinda scared me a little."

Ricochet continued to hang his head, and rubbed his hand across his face as if wiping off imaginary sweat. The girl regarded him for a moment more, then leaned the violin case against a streetlamp and approached the stoop. Smoothing her skirt under her, Keisha sat down beside Ricochet, and rested her hands in her lap. "What's bugging you today?" she asked, scooting a bit closer.

He grinned with irony, propping his chin up on his fist. "Hey Keisha, you ever thought that maybe you weren't as good as you thought you were?" Ricochet ventured, peeking at her through the corner of his eye. "That you spent too much time listening to people say you're all that, and then found out you aren't half that?"

"You're mad at me?" Keisha's face morphed into a frown. "I thought we were cool. I mean, I guess I was cocky about my Language Arts class, but I really don't bother you as much anymore and..."

"No no, you're great." Ricochet cut her off before she got the wrong idea. Relieved at the fresh smile the compliment brought to her face, he continued on. "I'm talking about me, as usual. You're lookin' at a Grade A moron, Keisha. All talk and no walk."

He sighed, his eyes loose and unfocused. "Man, today I thought I had it all," Ricochet groused, shaking his head as Keisha looked at him with concern. "I thought if I just had enough guts, I'd be able to clean anyone's clock three ways to Sunday. Turns out that there's some other guys out there with juice too, who got moxie and might like nobody's business. I'm a complete joke compared to that Akello dude."

"No way, Ricochet!" Keisha protested in shock. "You're not a joke!"

"C'mon." The fighter waved a dismissive hand in her general direction. "I know you have a thing for me, but get real."

"Uh uh, you're totally all that!" she insisted, her forehead furrowing. "Except now, when you're being dumb!"

"What do you call this, then?" he countered, digging through his satchel and coming up with the crumpled manuscript.

Keisha took the story from him with widening eyes. "What is it?" the girl asked, smoothing over the cracked and wrinkled pages.

"Something that sucks," he bit out, rolling his eyes. "Like the other stuff I can't cut it at."

But Keisha smiled, quickly scanning over the heading. "Whoa, I didn't know you wrote anything, Ricochet," she said, her eyes twinkling. Before Ricochet could say anything else, she was thumbing through the document, mumbling the dialogue to herself and altering her pitch for the various characters. "It's kinda weird," she giggled, putting her hand to her cheek.

"Kinda weird?" he exclaimed, throwing his arms out. "Keisha, this stuff's awful!"

"Oh yeah, it's bad, but it's energetic too," she said, handing it back to him. "Sorta like an episode of Fairly OddParents from Season 6. You know, when they introduced Poof."

"So I'm a cartoon hack." Ricochet snorted, his tongue sticking slightly from his mouth. "Great career ahead of me."

Keisha still smiled nonetheless, and then lifted the straps of her book bag off her shoulders and unzipped it. Rummaging through her books a bit, she grunted slightly as she pulled out a small document from a binder. "Hey, look at this!" she bubbled, handing him the stapled pages.

The wannabe writer took the document from her, the sloppy cursive and childish doodles hitting him with the same syrupy sweetness as a PBS puppet show. "What's this thing?" he asked her.

"It's my first story back when I was a kid," she explained, giving him a wink. "I just keep it around to look at sometimes when I wanna laugh."

With mounting confusion, Ricochet quickly skimmed the story, which was around five pages in total. It was something about a fairy princess that flew around on a rocket ship trying to get to a Boyz to Men concert. There was also a scene where the heroine had to compete in a battle of the bands against a group that had Red Fraggle from Fraggle Rock as the lead singer. All things considered, the teen could not keep the incredulous look from showing on his face.

"Uh...whoa," he started, trying to pick his words carefully, from a vocabulary much more profound than what was on those pages. "This"

"Yeah, it really stinks!" Keisha finished for him, her cherubic face glowing with mirth. "I did everything I could to hide it from Nathan so he couldn't make fun of me. But I look back on it sometimes, and see a lot of good energy that I can use in my newer works. You just need to keep trying, then you'll get it all together!"

"You think?" He looked back at Keisha's story, trying to reconcile it with the teenage phenom before him.

"Yeah." She beamed her dimpled smile into his soul like wireless internet data. "You can't really listen to people saying you're no good, anyway. Once you write a few stinkers, you'll start to get a lot better. You gotta go for it, Ricochet!"

"Wow, that's really something." Ricochet put his hand to his chin, contemplating this new line of thinking. "Man, Keisha, you know more than Mr. Matthews."

"Told ya!" she teased, playfully bumping him with her elbow. "And you can use that stuff for your boxing too! I mean, it works for me when I practice my violin."

Ricochet laughed heartily, clutching his stomach. "You're some super girl, you know that?" he told her, grabbing her by the shoulder. "Thanks a lot, Keisha!" With a broad smile, he leaned in and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

Keisha let out a short gasp, and jerked a bit in her seat. Ricochet felt a sudden stab in his gut, and backed away a bit to look at her face, wondering if he had scared her again. Her soft brown cheeks were deepening, her eyelashes fluttering up and down. Keisha's expression seemed to fluctuate between nervousness, curiosity, and sheer delight, all those emotions flashing in her round, onyx eyes.

With a gulp of hesitation, Keisha sidled up to him. Timidly, she returned the kiss on his cheek; Ricochet could feel the wisps of her hair on his forehead. He didn't pull back, and when looked at him again, there was a small, embarrassed smile on her face. A telltale blush was on her cheeks, a rare sign of shyness from the buoyant girl, now nose to nose with her hero.

Ricochet stared transfixed at Keisha, finding her intimidatingly close even though she had not moved an inch. Her bangs and ponytails were dancing with the rushing February wind; she had gotten surprisingly pretty since he had first known her. Ricochet thought deeper about Keisha, the quintessential little sister of his best friend that had been a part of his life for a long time. It seemed Keisha and he had something of their very own now, and as she leaned closer, she didn't seem quite so little anymore.

So with the girl's face a mere three inches from his own, Ricochet leaned in and kissed Keisha on the mouth. With one part hesitance and another part expectancy, she relaxed and settled into the kiss. Keisha clumsily kissed back, her hand gently touching his shoulder. They remained still a moment more, and Ricochet could feel her increasing pulse through her shoulder.

When at last they separated, Keisha was dumbfounded, struggling to catch her breath as if she were at the top of Mount Olympus, or at least a small hill in Kenya. "Hee, Ricochet, what..." She halted in her speech, eventually resorting to babbling. "I...umm...ummmm..."

"Don't worry 'bout it," he said, giving her a self-effacing smile. "It's cool."

"You really liked that?" she pressed him, leaning closer as if questioning a witness. "You're not kiddin' with me, Ricochet?"

"Ain't any kid to kid around with," he told her, sincerity lacing his words with a bright red bow. "You're the gal that's there for me, Keisha, so...thanks again."

The girl looked down for a moment with a smile and a deepening of the cheeks that complimented each other perfectly. "Can I see you tomorrow?" Keisha implored, gazing up at him.

"How about we grab a burger at Benny and Clyde's?" Ricochet suggested, a loopy smile rolling on his lip as he continued riding this loopy, roller-coaster of events.

Keisha finally broke out her trademarked smile. "Be there!"

With a coy manner about her, she bent forward and hugged him around the neck. Ricochet let his arms wrap around her slowly; once again, he could feel her pumping pulse though her clothes. When they separated, Keisha skipped on over to the sidewalk, tossing him another grin. "See ya later, Ricochet!" she cried, and ran off down the street, her shoes kicking up a trail of dirt behind her.

Ricochet watched her go, his glasses wobbling again on the bridge of his nose. He felt like he had just tied a tractor trailer to his back. Ricochet had just gone from having everything, to losing everything, to dating his best friend's sister, all in the space of a few hours.

You just need to keep trying. Keisha's voice came back to him, along with her electric smile. This one thought sent a jolt through his system, and suddenly his eyes were clear again.

So he was going out with his best friend's sister, losing his fights, and getting dumped on by his ex-girlfriend and his writing class; so what? He may have lost a few rounds, but he was already rarrin' for a rematch with life. Maybe even the best-friend's-sister-part would help a little. He had someone in his corner now, someone who'd support him even when things got a little rough.

Ricochet smirked to himself, and straightened the half-glasses on his nose. "Alright, Keisha, we'll take it one step at a time," he told the memory, and jabbed at the air. "This new fight's gettin' some Fleet Foot Flurries!"

The teen kickboxer and future novelist thrust out with a kick, feeling strong enough to climb the Philadelphia Art Museum steps one hundred times in a row.